Stephen Colbert and the trouble with ironic oppression

This piece is cross-posted from my blog Introverted Chicago.

With the recent announcement that Stephen Colbert will take over The Late Show when David Letterman leaves in 2015, there have been a flurry of jokes about the fact that #CancelColbert seems to have “worked”—albeit in the comedian’s favor. Before the hashtag movement becomes immortalized as a simple punchline, I think it’s important to examine just what #CancelColbert was actually about and how Colbert can be a better ally on his next, bigger platform.

I am a 24-year-old white woman. I start with that introduction because when talking about race and gender in our society the context of the person speaking matters. As I follow along with the #CancelColbert controversy and the efforts of Suey Park, I do so through the lens of a person who has never experienced institutionalized racial prejudice. I also do so through the lens of a Colbert fan, a young woman about the same age as Park, a writer, an activist interested in social justice, and a feminist. That last lens has been particularly influential in my understanding of the hashtag controversy and ensuing national debate. While I have never experienced the racism endured by people of color, I support Suey Park because I know what it feels like to face the daily grind of ironic oppression.

In my career as an entertainment writer with a feminist focus, I have spent plenty of time with the flighty mistress known as ironic sexism. When I wrote about a gender gap in screen time for men and women one of the top comments read:

“The women would have more screen time if activities like washing clothes, cooking and doing dishes were actually exciting.”

Another read:

“They spent those 28 minutes offscreen shopping because women be shoppin’, amirite fellas?? *gets kicked in the nuts by every female AVC commenter*”

On a piece about Sandra Bullock being one of the only women to earn a paycheck on par with male movie stars, a comment read:

“Yeah but I bet it was a man who negotiated that contract. Amirite? *ducks various rotten things thrown his way.*”

There is no doubt in my mind that these comments were all meant humorously and that they were likely written by people who do not support overt sexism in their daily lives. Two of these comments explicitly juxtapose their sexism with remarks set off by asterisks. These comments are designed to be ironically or satirically sexist in order to mock the fact that the world used to be a horribly sexist place and wouldn’t it be funny if people still talked like that? I understand the comedic intent, I understand that these men don’t actually believe what they are writing, and I understand that these individual comments will in no way negatively impact my career or life. Yet I still feel horrible when I read them.

To these commenters, sexism is an antiquated phenomenon so out-of-date that it has become a joke. To me, sexism is an active oppressive force that overwhelms me on a daily basis. After writing articles that prove sexism is still alive in the film industry, the last thing I want to read is a satirical exaggeration mocking the force I’m combatting. That’s because there’s ultimately very little exaggeration going on in this ironic sexism. Just look at any Men’s Rights website where these “satirical exaggerations” become the thesis statements for think pieces about why women don’t deserve to be treated as human beings. When I read ironic sexism I am reminded that the world is not always a safe place for me, that my path in life is harder to walk than my male colleagues, and that there are innumerable injustices being perpetrated against women around the world. One man’s humor is another woman’s suffering.

The inequality I am aware of as a white woman is probably small compared to the discrimination felt by people of color in this country. While legalized racism may be gone, systems of privilege keep people of color oppressed in a myriad of difficult-to-see ways. White privilege—explained in Peggy McIntosh’s seminal piece on the topic—means that white people don’t have to think about race because they benefit from being the “norm” against which all others are measured. While a white person like myself might experience a world that’s largely colorblind, a person of color has a very different view of a world in which there are too few role models and too much inequality. Women of color face not just the sum total of sexism and racism, but a form of intersecting oppression in which the two factors feed off one another.

Suey Park, the 23-year-old activist and writer at the center of the #CancelColbert movement, is an Asian-American woman who is acutely aware of the racial injustices of our society. When the official Colbert Show Twitter account tweeted a line from one of its recent shows, Park was not content to laugh along. The tweet—which had originally been delivered on Colbert’s show as a way to mock Washington Redskins owner Daniel Synder’s offensively named organization to support Native Americans—read “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong foundation for Sensitive to Orientals or Whatever.” Park quickly started the hashtag #CancelColbert as a way to express her frustration with the show’s use of Asian stereotypes. After all, even a satirical joke is a reminder that white men like Rush Limbaugh can build successful careers while being stunningly racist.

Many are quick to critique Park’s #CancelColbert campaign as being out of proportion with Colbert’s joke. As Conor Friedersdorf argues in his thoughtful piece, “The Perils of Making Racial Insensitivity a Firing Offense,” Colbert may owe the world an apology, but he probably doesn’t deserve to be fired. I would agree with this sentiment, and so, in fact, would Park, who admitted in a New Yorker interview that she did not actually want Colbert’s show to be cancelled. Why then, would she use such an exaggerated hashtag? Some have argued it’s because Park wants personal fame. But with even a cursory glance at the racial slurs, death threats, and rape threats Park has received since starting the campaign, it’s obvious that no one in her right mind would subject herself to that much hatred simply for celebrity. No, Park used hyperbole to draw attention to her cause because that’s the only way she can. If Park had tweeted a proportional response, something like: “Disappointed with Colbert’s use of stereotype-based humor tonight,” would it have started a national conversation? Would anyone but a handful of Park’s 20,000 Twitter followers have read it?

Women, and particularly women of color, do not have a national platform for voicing their opinions. While the airwaves are filled with white men running talk shows, satirical news programs, and actual news programs, the television landscape is a depressing place for anyone looking for diversity. Outside of perhaps Melissa Harris-Perry, how many women of color are allowed to contribute to the national conversation in the way Stephen Colbert, Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, Anderson Cooper, or Bill O’Reilly are? In a lose-lose situation Park chose to use hyperbole to make her voice heard and bravely opened herself up to criticism in the process. Her methods may have been blunt and lacking in nuance, but with few roads open for starting a dialogue that sort of revolutionary spirit is often necessary. As Park has explained, “It’s sad but unfortunately a lot of times our demands aren’t really met unless we have really serious asks or we generate these larger conversations. Unfortunately people don’t usually don’t listen to us when we’re being reasonable.”

When making any ironically sexist or racist joke, part of the target is undoubtedly the patriarchal system that maintains those oppressive standards. But equally, part of the target of the joke is the oppressed minority as its center. Think of the Ching Chong Ding Dong character Colbert referenced in his joke. Even if the intent is satirical, his shtick keeps racial slurs and stereotypes alive and encourages his audience to laugh at them. Do we laugh because we see someone satirizing offensive racial stereotypes? Or do we laugh because we find those stereotypes inherently funny? I am inclined to say it’s a combination of both. After all, there’s only the thinnest of lines between laughing and laughing “ironically.”

The best satire finds a way to “punch up” and attack the people in power by pointing out their hypocrisy or malice. Colbert’s joke was designed to do just that. He was attempting to criticize Dan Snyder’s refusal to change the insensitive name of the Washington Redskins and his decision to open a foundation that bears the same racist term. But in punching up to attack Snyder, Colbert also punched down. While trying to support the rights of Native Americans, Colbert made—at least some—Asian Americans feel bad about themselves.

It perhaps sounds like too simplistic of a position to take, but “don’t make oppressed groups feel bad about themselves” is a pretty admirable goal in a world that too often does the opposite. It is by no means the only problem to overcome in fixing this country’s racial inequality, but it is an easily achievable first step to take.

I don’t mean to suggest that comedians can never be controversial or satirical, but they should think long and hard about whom their critiques attack. There are plenty of ways Colbert could have made a similar joke without calling upon racial stereotypes. Perhaps he could have introduced his own “Klu Klux Klan Foundation for Inter-Racial Relations.” In that version of the joke, Colbert compares Snyder’s offensively named Redskins foundation to a fictional organization whose name also seems at odds with its goals. The only feelings that might be hurt are those of Snyder or the members of the KKK—all of whom deserve the biting backlash of satire. Asian Americans do not choose their race and do not deserve to be mocked—even ironically—for their permanent identities. Members of the KKK, on the other hand, choose to participate in a racist, violent group and deserve to be condemned in every way possible. This new joke keeps in mind my central tenant—do not make oppressed groups feel bad about themselves—but still features a satirical barb aimed in the right direction: at those who choose to be racist, not those who are born into a racial minority group.

When Colbert’s racial politics were questioned by Park’s campaign, hundreds of fans leapt to his defense. Unfortunately, Park has not received the same kind of support. Instead she’s been belittled—not just by disgusting threats on Twitter—but by a patronizing interview with Josh Zepps on the Huffington Post Live and a Salon interview seemingly edited to make her seem ditzy and unfocused. The increasing criticism has demanded that Park offer an argument that is clear, concise, and non-aggressive as well as a flawless history when it comes to pointing out past racism on Colbert. Park’s naysayers demand kindness and perfection from her even as they defend Colbert’s right to be controversial.

At the risk of sounding like an after school special, I would argue that the national dialogue needs a big helping of empathy when tackling this #CancelColbert controversy. That includes empathy for Colbert’s intentions, for Park’s situation, and especially for the struggles of women and people of color who live in a world that is much harsher than the one enjoyed by white men. The hurt of ironic racism or sexism may seem minor to those with privilege, but to those systematically oppressed by identical words, irony can still be painful.

I will never be able to fully understand what it feels like to live as a woman of color in a world ruled by white privilege. But I can read about the experiences of people of color, educate myself of the history of social justice, think about the similar prejudices that have impacted my own life, and try to imagine the world from Park’s point of view. That’s what it means to be an ally and we white Americans—including Stephen Colbert—need to get a whole lot better at playing that role.

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